FILM REVIEW: Morphine’s Mark Sandman finds success but no cure for pain
By C.J. Berg
Back in the late 60’s, when I was in elementary school, you couldn’t be just ten and in fifth grade.
You also had to have a favorite Beatle.
Practically speaking, the entire known world was divided between Paul and John, and everyone had a side — even the George and Ringo kids had to have an opinion.
There was never really any possible end to the discussion. How does one choose between Yesterday and Imagine? It was a lot like Superman vs Batman. We all knew who would win, but you could never convince anyone else to change their mind.
In the early 1980’s, Mark Sandman decided that one string did indeed “have all the notes,” and he and Dave Champagne (Paul to his John), with Billy Conway and Jim Fitting, formed an outfit called “Treat Her Right” and anchored themselves on the other side of the river, up in Cambridge, and basically did what no one else in Boston had been able to do up to that time or since.
They invented a genre: “Low Rock.” Or “Fuck Rock” as Mark calls it in the feature documentary, Cure For Pain: The Mark Sandman Story, now playing through the weekend at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge.
Those who found their way up to the Plough and Stars to hear it back in 1985 understood it immediately. And they also drew the inevitable “Paul/John” “Dave/Mark” emotional connection that the film respectfully and deferentially declines to touch, even while it delivers a satisfying emotional portrait of a musical genius gone long before his time.
Mark Sandman was the real deal. He wrote songs that defied classification and description. The one recalled best, “I Think She Likes Me,” took over Boston radio and seared through the desert of derivatives across the country, like a hot straight razor through butter.
Mark played a bass guitar with two strings and a slide. In the movie, Mike Watt, founding member of The Minutemen and bassist for The Stooges among many other groundbreaking credits, described his excitement upon hearing Mark’s bass playing, and asked “how did you do that?”
He was utterly discouraged to learn it was two strings and a slide because there was no way he or anyone else was ever going to figure it out and get it right. Mark Sandman played an instrument all his own, and wrote songs that were even more all his own. He was an absolute original.
So was Dana Colley, who played two baritone saxophones at the same time. Nobody who saw Morphine and heard the music could ever forget it, or get the driving, primal sounds out of their ear.
Maybe you heard “Top Floor Bottom Buzzer” back in the day. Maybe you’ll hear it for the first time now. But listen and you’ll know what the buzz was started about.
Morphine and Mark Sandman were all that. And Cure For Pain: The Mark Sandman Story captures it in a clear-eyed, balanced, unapologetic and fully satisfying and compelling way.
To a Dave guy, like me, Mark had taken Jim Fitting’s harmonica, the sonic and emotional center of Treat Her Right, and replaced it with the growling sax sounds of Dana Colley, and left out Dave Champagne’s guitar because, it would seem, just like with Paul and John, a band is never large enough, long enough for that kind of genius to collaborate forever.
As the movie makes painfully clear, the death of Mark’s second younger brother (yes, Mark’s mother, Guitelle Sandman, tragically buried all three of her sons), left Mark compelled to make the most that could be possible out of his life, and to set off to conquer the world. Yet it was the absence of the guitar that made as much noise as the rest of the instruments, and in separation, Dave and Mark could never really be heard completely apart. It must have eaten at them both.
But with Mark’s tragic death atop the mountain of Palestrina, Italy, the story could only be about one thing. It’s a remarkably poignant moment in the film when Dave is seen, sitting on his own living room couch, telling it exactly like it was, without rancor, or regret.
A brief vignette in the movie describes The Twinemen, Mark’s original comic creation of a band of twine beings that unravel and come back together again in a tangle of inevitable reunion. For those who know more of the back story, there are tantalizing threads declined to be knitted together that make the movie all the more intriguing.
Directors Robert Bralver and David Ferino clearly know that there’s only so much story you can tell in 90 minutes and if there can be focus on one thing, Morphine and Mark’s final concert in Palestrina, Italy, are clearly the most compelling.
And compelling they are.
The Morphine songs that dominate the soundtrack are driving, irrefutable monuments to a life fully lived. That there are only two Treat Her Right offerings (“I Think She Likes Me” and “Rhythm and Booze”, which was featured on the soundtrack to The Hangover for those paying attention) is, in the end, hardly discernible until the credits roll and you read the recap.
Bralver and Ferino touch with care the many raw emotional nerves left in the wake of Mark’s untimely passing, and tell a tragic story with delicate sympathy and respect, without ever diluting the emotional impact of the soundtrack and the music.
It’s a worthwhile and satisfying film for any music fan, and a must-see for anyone who knows Morphine and Treat Her Right. Highly recommended.